Ranching Life on the High Plains of Montana
Photo by Elliott D Woods

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher’s Way of Life


If you want to appreciate the prairie landscape that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside 230m acres as national land, you have to pull off the interstate somewhere in the Dakotas, or in the eastern third of Montana, Wyoming, or Colorado. Follow a dirt road for a few miles, roll down your windows, and shut off your engine. Do this almost any time of day, preferably in springtime. Above and below ground, the prairies are humming with life: birds, rodents, snakes, pronghorn, badgers and coyotes, rioting amid a landscape of grass and sagebrush.

A patchwork of public land comprises large blocs of this splendid and sparsely populated terrain, and while much public ground has the appearance of a nature preserve, it is mostly a working landscape. Public forage, timber, and water resources sustain thriving wildlife populations, along with millions of livestock and thousands of agricultural producers. For these people and their communities, public land isn’t a destination on a bucket list, a recreational playground, or a studio for Instagrammers – it’s a source of life to which they’re intimately connected. That’s why many ranchers are unnerved by the Republican party’s land transfer agenda, which aims to give away as much federal public land as possible to the states. While the movement gains traction among the Republican cadre, its attractiveness to rural westerners is less certain, and if it ever succeeds, it will mean a radical restructuring of the foundations of the economy and the culture of the west.

There is a hardcore element within the growing land transfer movement, represented most garishly by the Bundy clan from the Mormon stronghold of Bunkerville, Nevada, who owe more than $1m in unpaid federal grazing fees, and who blackened the image of anyone with a cowboy hat when they staged an armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon last year. The Bundys and their acolytes don’t believe the federal government has the right to own any land aside from military bases, but their militant, extremist position is a sideshow. The most powerful champions of land transfer wear business suits and woo industry and urban conservatives with a simple pitch: states understand their own resources better than the feds, and they’d do a better job of managing timber, livestock, petroleum, and mining leases for the benefit of the state economy and local communities.

For several years, the Utah congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the House natural resources committee, and the lobbyists attached to the American Lands Council (ALC), a not-for-profit group founded by the Utah state representative Ken Ivory, have been preaching the land transfer gospel. In July 2016, they won a major victory when the GOP officially added the land transfer agenda to the party platform. This happened despite an astonishing lack of research demonstrating that transferring land to the states would benefit anyone, industry included.

And if money tells us anything, it’s that ranchers aren’t much of a consideration in the land transfer movement. The ALC is registered as a 501(c)4 not-for-profit organization, which means it is not required to share donor details, but it has been established that substantial funding comes from the billionaire Koch brothers, who are heavily involved in the petrochemical industry and openly committed to destroying the environmental regulatory apparatus. In the ALC’s marketing videos, Ivory enumerates the many ways in which environmental regulations and bureaucratic red tape prevent states from maximizing revenue from oil and gas, mining, and timber development. I reached out to the ALC’s headquarters, to ask how they expected land transfer to affect agricultural communities, but received no response. Even though agriculture is a key economic driver throughout the western states, Ivory and his fellow land transfer advocates barely pay lip service to ranchers.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Cows water at a stock pond on Jim Hagenbarth’s ranch near Dillon, Montana. Photo by Elliott D Woods


It’s not as if all is rosy on the range. Spend a half hour talking with a public land rancher in the west, and you’re likely to hear an earful about how the federal government’s regulatory straightjacket limits their ability to do what’s best for the land and for their businesses. Many ranchers are frustrated by litigation brought by environmental groups over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which they say results in burdensome regulations that keep federal land agency officers tied up with paperwork instead of focused on rangeland management.

Sage grouse – large, ground-dwelling members of the family that includes quail and partridge – are the rangeland management controversy du jour in Montana, where I live. In some instances, measures designed to boost grouse numbers have forced ranchers to reduce or eliminate grazing on public pastures they’ve used for decades. In other cases, they’ve been unable to implement noxious weed control and fire prevention measures, which they claim has made sagebrush habitat more prone to destructive fires and less healthy for wildlife and livestock.

The same federal government helped restore the gray wolf to the northern Rockies and is still protecting a population of grizzly bears that has outstripped its government recovery goals. While environmental groups cheer the return of wild carnivores, ranchers in predator country worry about their calves and lambs becoming the next meal. None of these actions, however justified, have endeared the federal government to the western ranching community, which is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican.

And yet, not one of the dozen or so ranchers I have talked to thinks that any of these headaches merit transferring federal land to the states. Quite the opposite: they all tell me that transfer to the states would create a maelstrom of uncertainty for their businesses. In the worst case, they say that transfer would push their communities, and their way of life, closer to the brink of extinction.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Hagenbarth checks on the various grasses in the test plot at his ranch. Photo by Elliott D Woods


There are about 22,000 public land ranchers in the west who hold grazing leases on about 250m acres of federal rangeland. They occupy a tenuous space in a livestock market dominated by huge corporate outfits in Texas, Oklahoma, and the midwestern states, and they often survive in challenging environments where short growing seasons, scarce water, and extreme temperatures and terrain are the norm. With all the variables at play – from increasingly unpredictable weather to fluctuating beef prices – there isn’t much margin for error in their financial planning. According to Jim Hagenbarth, 68, who owns a ranch with his brother Dave that spans the Montana-Idaho border and which has been in his family since the 1930s, land transfer advocates have not adequately addressed how state agencies would avoid destroying the grazing lease fee structure, which has been a bedrock of stability for western ranchers since the Great Depression.

Under federal lease programs established in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, stockgrowers pay a monthly fee of less than $2 for each animal that they turn out on to leased ground during the summer and autumn months. Grazing fees on state land are as much as 20 times higher, and they vary from year to year based on several factors, including the market cost of beef. If ranchers with large federal leases were suddenly forced to pay state fees, Hagenbarth said, many of them would go under, and the resources and the wildlife they support would suffer in their absence.

In addition to fees, ranchers take on out-of-pocket expenses to develop water, maintain fences, and fight weeds. “Weeds are the greatest threat to public land in the west,” he said. According to Hagenbarth’s calculations, those costs averaged $30 per animal over five years. “It costs one hell of a lot of money to do a good job. We don’t just turn the cows out and let ’em tear the hell out of it. We spray a lot of weeds,” he said. “It’s now to the point that the federal government should be paying you to graze the land, with all the costs we have to manage it.”

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Hagenbarth: ‘It costs one hell of a lot of money to do a good job.’ Photo by Elliott D Woods


In early May, Hagenbarth took me on a tour of several of the family’s pastures outside of Dillon, Montana, sandwiched between the Madison and Centennial mountain ranges, which still held snow almost down to the tree line. It was the peak of the spring “green-up”, when seasonal grasses flourish before going dormant and fading to a tawny gold. Herds of pronghorn grazed amid small clusters of black angus cattle. Mating pairs of mallard ducks swam in a watering hole that Hagenbarth built, and curved-billed curlews stalked the marshy banks on stilt-like legs. Hagenbarth, who graduated from Notre Dame University, where he played rugby, pointed out various strains of grasses – blue grama, needle-and-thread, Bozoisky, Vavilov – and explained the ways he and his family were trying to improve rangeland health, from new approaches to grazing rotation designed to protect riparian areas and stimulate grass growth, to weed management, to attempts to restore native grasses and reverse the legacy of Dust Bowl erosion that still haunts his pastures.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Hagenbarth keeps a list of quotes from the legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold in his pocket notebook. Photo by Elliott D Woods


His face, shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat, was covered in ruby blotches – a side-effect of a preventive treatment for skin cancer. Hagenbarth’s tanned, gnarled hands, like his face, are a testament to a life spent in the sun. According to him, if transfer were to force ranchers off the range, the loss to western landscapes and communities would go beyond the disappearance of ranchers and their livestock, something that some environmental groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity, actively seek.

“You need livestock, which do what the big bison herds did when you had the wolves and the Indians moving them around. You have to have some kind of grazing disturbance to keep the ecosystem healthy, but the American people don’t understand that,” he explained. Ranchers’ knowledge of the land they work on a daily basis – public and private – is also invaluable, according to Hagenbarth. “I’ve been here 68 years, and I know this place by the individual tree and the fish in a specific hole in the creek. Over a lifetime, you develop a land ethic for a piece of ground and you have a responsibility to manage it for society using the tools that nature gave you – from hoof pressure to grazing and fire.”

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Vicki Olson ties up horses on the morning of a branding at the French ranch in Phillips County. Photo by Elliott D Woods


Vicki Olson, 63, owns a ranch with her sister, Nancy Ereaux, 54, and their husbands, near the Canadian border in north-central Montana, on ground her Basque sheepherder ancestors homesteaded over a hundred years ago. She shares Hagenbarth’s concerns. Like most ranches in the semi-arid Missouri River Breaks region of north-central Montana, the Olson-Ereaux operation depends on large public grazing leases. Olson worries about what state ownership would mean for the cost of goods, determined by the expenses that go into delivering a full-grown animal to market. “Right now … you can’t lose that lease unless you abuse it or don’t pay, so we have a kind of guarantee there,” Olson explained. The promise of multi-generational leases gives ranching families everywhere the incentive to treat public pasture as their own.

Interestingly, one of the biggest complaints ranchers make about land management agencies is that they are understaffed and underfunded, which means agents don’t have nearly enough time to make the rounds to local ranches. That not only reduces the two-way flow of beneficial information about management practices, but also allows negligent leaseholders to get away with damaging the range.

In general, though, Olson said most ranchers wanted to turn over their property and its adjoining leases to kids or close relatives, and to maximize its productivity to ensure high resale value. Whether planning for a sale or for the next generation’s inheritance, investing for the long-term health of public and private rangeland is just good business sense.

In contrast to the federal lease system, Montana state leases are 10-year contracts awarded to the highest bidder. “Someone can come in and bid you way up, and then they can withdraw, and they don’t have to meet that bid, and you’re stuck with it … That would be really hard on ranchers,” Olson said, sitting on the porch of her modest ranch house, a couple hundred yards from the red-roofed homesteader cabin in which she grew up.

In tough times, or when people don’t expect to hold on to a piece of ground, they try to get as much out of the resource as possible in the shortest amount of time. And since the Taylor Grazing Act’s rangeland protections don’t apply on state ground, there is no regulatory mechanism to prevent abuse. “What the state will find is that someone will come in and bid way up on it, farm the ever-loving heck out of it, trash it, and then turn it back.”

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Vicki Olson, 63, on her porch at her home in Phillips County. Photo by Elliott D Woods


Chris Mehl, the policy director of Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based research firm, told me that the concerns of ranchers like Hagenbarth and Olson were entirely valid. “All state lands in the west other than state parks have a mandate to be utilized to maximize return,” he explained. That means a rancher could be kicked off a piece of ground if the state couldn’t demonstrate profitability from the lease, or if there were a promise of a higher return from another activity. In the event that a piece of state land didn’t cash-flow, the state would be legally obligated to sell it – a worst-case scenario that would open the door to massive development. By contrast, the multiple-use mandate of the federal land management agencies means no user group claims priority, and there is no requirement for federal lands to remain in the black. Land transfer advocates claim state ownership would be better for business, but Mehl disagrees: “We look at rural western counties, and the ones with a high percentage of federal lands are outperforming the ones that don’t have it.”

Additionally, Mehl said, “there are enormous costs that would be incurred by states, and, in almost all of them, you’re not allowed to deficit spend, which the federal government does every year regardless of who’s in power.” Those costs would include hiring thousands of personnel to fill the roles of federal range managers, research scientists, law enforcement, and all the staff who support them, not to mention the unfathomable expense of fighting wildfires. Wildfire management alone currently costs the federal government over $3bn annually and amounts to roughly half of the US Forest Service budget. How would western states, which are already facing budget shortfalls, suddenly generate revenue for additional hundreds of millions of dollars worth of expenses?

Ethan Lane, the executive director of the Public Lands Council, a project of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents stockgrowers who hold public land grazing permits, told me: “Wholesale transfer of public lands could have a tremendously destabilizing effect on the western cattle industry.” If state land were ever to go up for auction, Lane said, it’s unlikely ranchers in areas with high scenic and recreational values would be able to compete with real estate developers. Subdivisions and trophy homes would replace production agriculture in places like the Big Hole Valley, where Hagenbarth lives, which boast the sort of mountain views and that millionaires drool over.

Jay Bodner, the natural resources director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which represents about 2,000 ranchers across the state, told me that his organization’s current position is that ranchers would be “better off trying to work with [federal] agencies” to solve management problems. “There are complexities with a lot of these issues, and by simply moving them from federal to state – those complexities will still be on the landscape,” he said. Across Montana’s southern border, Jim Magagna, executive vice-president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, told me something similar. “We have not come out in favor of the transfer. We have not opposed it. But we’re certainly not advocates for it.”

Leo Barthelmess, a sheep rancher, former director of the Montana Stockgrowers and neighbor of Vicki Olson, put it more simply: “We’d just be exchanging one landlord for another.”

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

A rider blocks a calf during a roundup in Phillips County. Photo by Elliott D Woods


From the perspective of the public land rancher, the economic case against land transfer seems clear enough, at least in the context of my home state of Montana, where public land comprises almost 40% of the state’s land mass. But the more time I spent with ranchers on both sides of the political aisle, in various parts of the state, the more I began to wonder if the focus on economics might be a distraction from the cultural and ecological arguments for keeping ranchers and livestock on public land.

When I visited Vicki Olson and her husband, Darryl, 65, at their ranch in early May, Vicki asked me if I was interested in attending a calf branding the following morning. She gave me directions to the French Ranch that didn’t include any road names, but consisted instead of phrases like, “When you see the old church on top of the hill, turn left at the next dirt road,” and, “It’ll be the only turnoff that looks like it’s been recently used after you cross the creek.” I camped for free that night on a patch of Bureau of Land Management ground beside a stock pond.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Nancy Ereaux, 54, helps round up cattle during a branding at the French ranch. Photo by Elliott D Woods


A crowd of people showed up the following morning to help Craig and Conni French and their nephew Wayne brand more than 600 calves. About 25 friends, relatives, and community members, including a local schoolteacher and a BLM employee from the local office, pitched in throughout the day, stopping every so often for a cookie or a cup of coffee. What at first appeared to be mayhem was actually skillfully executed teamwork that required almost no direction. Men and women on horseback lassoed calves by the hind feet and dragged them to the center of the corral, where they were quickly tackled to the ground by teams of two, restrained, inoculated, branded, and castrated. There was no distinction between men’s and women’s work, and everyone from grade school kids to grandparents seemed happy to pitch in and help. Some folks had traveled from hours away. By the end of the day, close to sunset, I was totally worn out. Craig French’s mother, Cork, had prepared a feast of barbecue, potato salad, and fresh-baked pies, which she served in an old camper trailer parked at the entrance of the pasture.

“We’ll be doing this every weekend for the next month or so,” Olson told me. She said that she and Darryl regularly helped friends who live as far as 30 miles away, and that they wouldn’t be able to survive without the help of others. “If your neighbor thinks you need something, they supply it without being asked,” she said. In addition to helping with brandings, community members go in together on expensive equipment and help each other trailer stock to auction. When Olson’s aunt died in the middle of this year’s calving season, neighbors checked on their heifers day and night while the Olsons attended to family business. “I think we have a pretty unique community,” she told me.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

A man brands a calf while two wranglers hold it still at the French ranch. Photo by Elliott D Woods


I thought about a conversation I’d had with Ralph Maughan, a member of the Board of Directors of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a conservation group firmly opposed to public land grazing. Years before, I’d spoken to Maughan – a retired political science professor – for a story I was working on about wolves, and I had appreciated his insights. The gist of the WWP’s position on public land ranchers was their output represents a minuscule fraction of US beef production, and they do more widespread and lasting damage to public land than any other user group. If public land ranchers were to disappear entirely, Maughan said, they would not be missed by the broader cattle industry, and it would be better for wildlife and rangeland habitat.

In the aggregate, I couldn’t really argue with Maughan’s broader logic – perhaps it was true that most public land grazing allotments occupied ground that would be better off without livestock, like the cholla and saguaro deserts of Arizona and the Great Basin of Wyoming. At the same time, the argument seemed to denigrate the place of ranchers on public land. Here was a group advocating for termination by legislative fiat of an embattled, marginal community, and one with a strong culture based in a traditional livelihood that was more or less sustainable.

I ran Maughan’s comments past Dave Pyke, a research ecologist with three decades of experience who works for the US Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center in Corvallis, Oregon. Pyke said that arid and semi-arid ecosystems where there is no history of large ungulates would probably do better without any grazing pressure, but that in areas where bison herds once roamed and grasses have adapted, there is a body of evidence that properly managed livestock grazing provides ecological benefits. In addition, removing livestock from areas where ranchers have become part of the solution to eliminating noxious weeds might also be ruinous – even if it was those same livestock who spread the weeds in the first place.

Brian Martin of the Montana office of the Nature Conservancy agrees. “Ranchers are a key partner because they’re interested in a lot of the same outcomes as the conservation community. At the end of the day, we want to keep intact habitat that supports the full complement of wildlife species, and we’re able to use that livestock grazing as a way to manage and manipulate habitat conditions.” Darcie Warden, of the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition, told me that her organization also sees ranchers as vital to the future of habitat and wildlife conservation.

In Montana, Land Transfer Threatens the American Rancher's Way of Life

Vicki Olson, 63, and her husband Darryl, 64, visiting for a moment while Darryl checks heifers at their ranch. Photo by Elliott D Woods


“You know the saying: cows, not condos. In some places that doesn’t apply, but out here it does. This is a sought-out location by a lot of people and there’s a lot of money, and if we lose those working ranch lands, we are going to see a fragmented landscape.”

On the morning I sat with Vicki Olson on her porch, she seemed cheerful, even as she described her sense that the walls were closing in. Life on the range has never been easy, and as far as Olson is concerned, the land transfer threat is just the latest in a string of attempts to push ranchers off the land. The only thing unique about it is that it’s coming from the right.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but that was before this administration,” Olson said, referring to the election of Donald Trump. When I asked Olson who she thinks is representing the interests of her community in Washington, she said: “Well, Liz Cheney out of Wyoming, and Rob Bishop out of Utah.” I asked her if she knew that Rob Bishop was the chief advocate of the land transfer agenda in Congress, and she looked stunned. “No, I didn’t know that,” she said. “That really surprises me.”

I asked Olson where she thought the ranch and the adjacent public land would be in 50 years. “I hope it’s still in agriculture,” she said, although she said she wasn’t sure either of her two children would ever take over the ranch. Her daughter, Michelle, owns a ranch with her husband in South Dakota, and her son, Jason, lives in the Bitterroot Valley, on the other side of the state. “He’s interested in the ranch, but we’re not ready to retire and we can’t afford to hire another person,” Olson told me. “Besides, when you love what you do, you don’t need to retire. That’s what my dad always said, and he was out here feeding cattle till the day he died.


Elliott Woods is an award-winning Montana-based writer and photographer focusing on the intersections of environmental, cultural, and political conflict.

Co-published with The Guardian

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Elliott Woods is an award-winning Montana-based writer and photographer focusing on the intersections of environmental, cultural, and political conflict.

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